Certain investors are skeptical. Anyway, group officials confirm that the Italo-Spanish chain of optical shops, General Optica International, is working on a public offering on the Madrid stock exchange which should now take place next February or March, after several failed attempts that have been attributed to stockmarket conditions and other mysterious factors. The recent exit from the former UK-based Vantios group of the 390-store Dollond & Aitchison chain may have improved the group's profitability, allowing it to concentrate on the Southern European market. Three quarters of the General Optica's turnover of about 170 million euros is accounted for by the Spanish operation by the same name, which dominates the Spanish market. Italy's Salmoiraghi & Vigano chain represents the balance.

General Optica and Salmoiraghi can use the extra financing to counterattack the recent and planned inroads of large multi-national retailers such as Fielmann (see previous story) and the Cole/Pearle Vision group, which have apparently both offered to take over General Optica. Pearle Europe made its first incursion into Italy last July by acquiring Avanzi, a chain of 26 optical stores in the Emilia region, for over 15 billion lire (e8m-$8m), as a stepping stone toward the planned establishment of 200 controlled outlets throughout the peninsula. Pearle Europe has 545 other stores in Belgium, Holland, Austria and Germany.

Salmoiraghi wants to expand in a relatively fragmented domestic market where 70 percent of the 10,800 opticians are independents. With only 97 retail outlets and a further 17 franchises, Salmoiraghi is already market leader, followed by another integrated national chain, Optissimo (20 outlets), and by other chains operating at the regional level or by retailers organized into buying groups. One regional chain is Ottica Romani of Lazio with 30 sales outlets. One of the largest buying groups is Green Vision, which belongs to the C.O.I.consortium and comprises some 240 opticians.

Many regional chains are in financial difficulty. Some of them reportedly hold inventories that are 3 to 4 years old, while those of their competitors are only about 5 months old. For Salmoiraghi, whose turnover should grow this year by 5 percent to 90 billion lire (e46m-$47m), it's an argument that can help reduce the price of certain acquisitions.

Anyhow, the Milan-based chain plans to invest in 2000 on the gradual enlargement of its shops up to an ideal average floor area of 250 square meters which, with all the merchandise on show, should help raise the annual turnover per store to about 2.5 billion lire (e1.3m-$1.3m). The reorganization of the store network started 3 years ago. At present, the average floor area is 110 sqm., but recent openings are in the 400-sqm. range, close to the level of General Optica's stores in Spain.